Monday, 4 November 2013

A letter to Lou on her anniversary

Dear Lou,

It’s been a long time.  So long, I’m not sure you’d recognise the girl - almost too young to be working a suicide hotline, but already so very weary - you took under your wing.

But then again, maybe you would – because in that short time our lives intersected, you played a huge part in the woman I became.

It’s hard to know where to start, you know? There’s so much I want to say, so much I understand now that I didn’t then, so many questions I want to ask that I didn’t then. But most of all, I want to give you the chance to shelter under my wings – the adult wings that can now hold as much space as you need – needed – for as long as it takes.

I can’t give you – nor do you need – the shelter I can offer now that I couldn’t then, because I had to grow into it. But I can sit with you, on this day of your anniversary - much as Will and Lyra did in their different worlds – and talk to you.  I hope that’s ok.

First of all, thank you. Thank you for being you – for being there. For being able to see past the rage and for daring to stick your arm through it to the hurting girl beneath. Thank you for listening, so often and so completely – and without judgment. Your faith in me, in my ability to face situations – both small and large – meant the world and made a universe of difference to my life.  Things got better in small ways: I remember hearing your Carolina drawl behind me on that December day, a little over a month after you died, after my biochem exam, saying, “Good job. I’m so proud of you.” I got the highest grade in the class.

And because you trusted me to handle the small things, you made it possible for me to go for the big ones: 3 months and 4 days after your death, I moved out of my parents’ house, leaving them a note on the fridge.

Despite the struggle; the immense pressure from my parents to move back home; the overwhelming depression that roared to the surface when I was no longer constantly fighting my family and led me to put my leg over the 8th floor balcony railing one December night; my father ringing me on my birthday and asking, ‘So, how are you paying your rent? Are you sleeping with your male friends?’ – despite all that, it was the best decision I ever made. My life truly became my own that day.

There are no words to thank you for being one of the incredible, loving people who made it possible for me to make that choice.

But that’s not all there is to say – some things are darker, more painful. Yet they need to be spoken aloud.

Never will I forget that Saturday morning, having arrived on shift and hearing that one of the Child Protection line workers had committed suicide; looking up in horrified curiosity asking, ‘Who?’ and hearing your name.  Even now, I can feel the full physical agony, as if someone was ripping out the inside of my solar plexus, and I want to scream all over again.

Yes, even now, the memory feels like this morning's.

The fury was like a wildfire through a forest that hadn’t seen rain in years – rage at you for making the choice you did, then telling the police officers who knocked at your door that you were fine, only to die hours later; rage at myself for being someone who worked a suicide hotline but hadn’t seen it in you; rage at G-d for letting you do this.  I hated you so much. SO much.

I was absolutely functional within minutes:  I did a full hotline shift;  in the evening, it was off to  parental friends for dinner – my parents had no clue anything was wrong, and to this day they have no idea that I had a friend who committed suicide.  The price was dear, but there was no way I was going to become the paralysed, incapable of functioning, manipulative energy-sucker my mother became whenever a painful situation arose.

I did it by being angry, as I still do occasionally when I need emotional reserves I simply don’t have; I stoked my rage at you: I didn’t go to your memorial service; I refused to grieve you; I imagined shouting, ‘WHY???? WHY????????? HOW FUCKING DARE YOU???????? SCREW YOU, BITCH!’ at you so many times. Then I just wanted to pretend you never existed, had never found a way into my heart, had never been, for far too brief a time, the mother I needed. I wanted to gut your room in my heart and redecorate so I could pretend I’d never been touched. After all, YOU took yourself out of my life, so *I* would make it so you had never been in it.

But love wouldn’t have it: it was your voice I heard that December day…and so many days after.  Even now, sometimes.

Even now, echoes remain. I freak out during sustained arguments: what if something happens before we resolve this? ‘Are you ok?’ litters my vocabulary like kebabs on the pavement on a Saturday morning. Good friends *have* to say goodbye before extended absences, or the panic squeezes my heart till I can’t breathe, because I can’t forget the day I poked my head into your room across the hall and didn’t hug you because you had your back to me, cutting out a pattern – it didn’t matter because I was supposed to see you again. I didn’t.  My parents made me exquisitely aware of subtext and emotional resonances, you honed my edge for catching the leading edge of depression, of the slip into the suicidal. It was from you I learned that depressed to suddenly light of heart was not something to be relieved at; it was something to be terrified of, something to interrogate.

Every last one of these is a scar, but every last one of these is a gift: even if I'm absolutely certain I’m right, I’ll put my  hand out to reconcile; my friends know I want to know how they really are; the people I love know I love them; and that therapeutic awareness means I’ve asked the right questions more than once.

Out of darkness, light.

And what if you were here now, and we could just talk; or if you’d been here all these years? Would we have stayed in touch, or would there have been a natural letting go? Would we have become women who genuinely liked each other and shared confidences, rather than a surrogate mother sheltering a wayward chick?

I don’t know. But I know where I’ve been – and I can talk to you about that.

Thirteen months after you died, I was where you were – and made a different decision when the question ‘What right have you to take yourself out of other people’s lives?’ came to/was asked of me. In that moment, I remembered what it felt like when you took yourself out of mine, and knew I couldn’t do it to anyone else, and pulled my leg back over that railing. So, a second time, you made me own my life.

It wasn’t the only time – I’ve been there a number of times since, though not so often in recent years.  I’ve always made the same decision, though I don’t know if I always will, because sometimes bringing an end to that pain is so desperately tempting  – we never know, do we? The moment I realised that uncertainty about each time that – or any other – decision looms, I understood.

And I let go – the one time, perhaps, I’ve truly forgiven (both of us and G-d) but not forgotten.

The years since you’ve been gone haven’t always been easy, though there have been many blessings, much laughter and incredibly wonderful friends alongside the darker times spent struggling with inner demons that created outer heartache and pain. So many things I’d loved to have discussed with you: men, religion, life, some of my absolute clangers of decisions, growing up…but above all, your life. Your experience. I’d have wanted to get to know your heart, as you’d begun to know mine. And I think you’d have loved visiting Oxford…so much older than antebellum Carolina ;-).

Oh Lou, you’ve been gone so much longer than the length of time we knew each other, but I miss you so much. You taught me that 30 minutes or 30 years doesn’t matter – love does.

I love you.

And I hope I’ve done you proud. 

Fried chicken and pecan pie,


Jennifer Rowan said...

So powerful, lyrical, ugly, honest and brimming with love. Thank you.

Unknown said...

{{hugs you}}

What an amazing woman. (Her *and* you.)

Thank you for sharing those memories with us; it was a privilege to read them.